P ouring a cup of instant coffee, looking over the kitchen counter into my living room, I suddenly saw it. On the right-hand side of my sofa, the side that gave a good view of the TV screen, there was a dent – not a deep ravine, a roundish, shallow crater, just big enough to accommodate my 53-year-old keester.
Soon I would park myself there, coffee cup on the table, pick up the remote control, and zap till I found some appropriate drivel – probably a tear jerker from the Hallmark Channel. There I would spend the afternoon, watching TV, grading tests, and doing as little constructive thinking – or actually, anything else – as possible.
It was March, 2003, and this was my life. Ten years before, on a perfectly innocent-seeming Saturday, my husband had complained of a headache. About three minutes later my life and my family’s changed irrevocably. My husband, at age 48, had suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage, which gradually deteriorated into dementia. After a few years, I had left my job in curriculum development, with its long commute, and returned to English teaching in our area, near to the city of Ashkelon in Israel, to be closer to home.
After a period of time with home care, my husband fell and suffered additional damage, and I had to put him in a nursing home. Three of my four children had finished high school and gone on to military service, work and study. My youngest daughter was a senior in high school. We were on good terms, but seemed to be living in parallel in a house that had become too big.
Now I saw the physical manifestation of what my life had become – a few English classes and a living room sofa. The shallow dent was an echo of the rut I was in. This won’t do, I thought. I must make some changes.
During the next few days I was busy. I took my long-unused guitar out of the closet and changed the strings. I joined a local amateur theater, renewed contact with a few old friends, invited over relatives I hadn’t seen lately and got an early start on spring cleaning. But I knew I needed more. I wanted to get out of teaching.
I had taught English as a foreign language in high schools throughout the ’80′s. The Israel Ministry of Education then advocated a communicative approach to English teaching which I enjoyed. I taught a variety of students in both academic and vocational high schools, some of whom took the formidable Bagrut – Israeli matriculation – exam in their senior year, others who took the Tagat, or general final exam. I had left the system in 1991 to work at the prestigious Center for Education Technology, co-writing two new learning programs and giving the teachers who used them in-service training.
My husband’s illness brought me back to teaching, and to a new reality – many vocational schools had closed down, and everyone was teaching and learning for the test. Gradually, the Bagrut changed into a hodgepodge of multi-level modules, and students who once could learn a trade and later support themselves as they strived for higher learning, were now being dragged, pushed, pinched and hoisted into an academic matriculation.
I became a worker in the Great Bagrut Factory, moving my students down the assembly line, boring them and myself as I drilled groups of 35-40 students whose motivation was that they had no choice. It was time to look for a new job.
Checking the want ads, I discovered a group that was trying to start a democratic school in Tel Aviv. But what was a democratic school? I knew Israel had a few open schools and other experimental schools, nobody I knew could tell me what democratic schools were.
I had read about Summerhill and longed to visit. But I had never seen those two words – democratic and school – together. I began researching and was astonished to discover that Israel already had over 20 such schools, and that the school in Hadera was actually the first school in the world to use that name.
“This could be interesting,” I thought. “Of course I’m not moving to Tel Aviv, but it would be interesting to learn more…”
And so I joined a group of about 20 adults who began studying together, mentored by Yaacov Hecht, who had founded the Hadera School, headed the Institute for Democratic Education, and established IDEC. We learned a great deal about ourselves, about education and all it could be, about self-managed learning and the Democratic process in schooling.
We visited democratic schools around the country and began interning at some of them. I was amazed and delighted to find that many of my own thoughts about education, work with youth and school life were shared by many others and that my ideas of a student-teacher partnership based on mutual respect and real desire for learning was not just my crazy notion.
In August 2005, I found myself packing up and moving to an apartment in Tel Aviv. On September 1st, the Kehilla (“community” in Hebrew) School opened, and I was one of the teacher-advisors.
There is a great deal more to tell about Kehilla, and about the other democratic schools here in Israel, but I will save it for later. I’ll just close with a moment in June, 2006. It was the end-of-the-year party of Kehilla, held on the Manta Ray beach of Tel Aviv. Standing by the water, hair blowing in the wind, watching the kids running in the sand, playing with each other and with their parents, brought together by this amazing first year, I blessed my good fortune.
The first end-of-the year party in a school I had helped to create – a once in-a-lifetime experience. The water and winds moved and changed the sand, creating wavy rifts and little hills, shifting constantly – nothing like a dent worn into a sofa.
Photo by Arthur Rothstein. Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. April 1936. (LOC)